F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “there are no second acts in American lives.” At first glance, these words seem dark. Yet, literary critics argue Fitzgerald’s words are optimistic and mean one’s future is shaped by one’s past. If so, then Lake Forest interior designer Megan Winters’ Midwestern upbringing, her past role as a CEO of a Chicago-based company, her triumphant health journey, and her deep Lake Forest connections have brilliantly prepared her as her own “second act” garners national attention and glowing accolades.
In its May 2015 issue, ELLE DECOR highlights Winters’ talents in its vaunted “style” section. Eight pages feature Winters and her husband, Patrick’s, Lake Forest home and showcase her trademark style—gilded glamour with a Parisian edge and a generous dose of fun! Winters received the news of her selection as one of ELLE DECOR’s “new talent” on her 10th wedding anniversary. “As I was getting ready for dinner with my husband, the phone kept ringing and ringing. The number had a New York City area code. I finally picked it up and got the news. It was so surreal and one of the most exciting moments of my entire life,” she recalls with a giddy laugh.
Winters’ highly successful second act—Megan Winters Design, an interior design firm, and Megan Winters Atelier & Maison, her downtown Lake Forest shop—follows an equally successful first act. After she graduated from the University of Chicago’s MBA program, she and her father, Larry Wright, founded a printing company that created high-end packaging for national retailers including Barney’s, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus. Winters loved working with her father whom she describes as “my mentor and my hero,” and the business was thriving both domestically and internationally. Then, in 2002, Winters was diagnosed with a tumor on her brain stem and told she had six to eight weeks to live. She reacted to this prognosis with grit and determination. “I simply said ‘I am not dying’,” she remembers. Now in complete remission, Winters describes herself as a “grateful survivor.” The experience profoundly changed her work habits, personality, and relationships. “I was an absolute workaholic. I worked seven days a week, 20 hours a day, and barely slept. I was very guarded with my emotions and much more insecure. I obviously had all this creativity in me but I didn’t have the inner confidence to take a risk on making a bad decision.” Following her diagnosis, Winters developed a new, if poignant, appreciation for life. She rekindled her relationship with Patrick, whom she describes as her “everything,” and married in 2004; left the printing business to start her interior design business; and moved to Lake Forest to be closer to her sister and business partner, Heather Milligan, and her two nieces, Claire and Charlotte.
Winters credits cancer with teaching her to “trust my gut.” Reliance on instinct plays a paramount role in her relationships with her interior design clients. “I have never advertised; all my business is word of mouth. I am really big on vibes. I only get involved in projects where I feel like I am the best fit for the client, and I have the luxury of only working with people I like and trust. The process has to be fun, life is too short!” she explains. The relationship begins with an in-depth interview, continues with site visits, inspiration boards, CAD drawings, and color renderings of the spaces. Winters believes these color renderings are especially important because she doesn’t want her clients to be unpleasantly surprised. “We are a team. I want my clients to know what the space will feel like. The renderings really keep the energy going and build trust.” The lessons she learned as CEO of the printing company are never far from her mind. “Most of my clients are CEOs and their families. I was a CEO myself so I understand what they are looking for. For example, I understand scheduling and finance as well as aesthetics. These are qualifications and experiences most designers don’t have.”
Winters’ collaboration with ELLE DECOR first began with her selection as a designer for the prestigious 2013 “Design On A Dime” event. Of the fifty designers chosen for the charity event, Winters was one of the few designers chosen from the Midwest and the only designer selected from the Chicago area. Designers were given three days to create dazzling vignettes to be showcased during a lavish opening night reception. After shipping the room’s contents to a Long Island City warehouse, Winters and Milligan left for New York City. Upon their arrival, the sisters learned the pieces for the room were missing. Days went by before the pieces were finally located. Winters and Milligan then had only one hour and twenty minutes to create their space. The pair flew into action. “As sisters we had an unspoken understanding of what needed to be done,” she explains. The two persevered even after one of the three signature chandeliers fell from the ceiling, striking Milligan in the head, and shattering on the concrete floor. “These people had no idea who they were dealing with. We just said we will not be defeated by this. Our father used to say you can bang on the wall or kick the garbage can but that doesn’t do any good beyond getting the frustration out. We have raised you to figure it out and make it work. Meet the challenge. That is an inner confidence our family gave us.”
Winters is thrilled by the future opportunities the ELLE DECOR article may create. “I hope it provides me with more opportunities to work for more amazing people on spectacular projects across the country,” she says enthusiastically. Yet, as she looks to the future, Winters cherishes her present and is grateful for her past. “Every day I wake up and get to do what I love to do. Doing what you love and being with those you love is the greatest gift of all.” As she finishes these words, a broad smile crosses her face. Megan Winters is more than ready for her second act.